Happy New Website Footer

Happy New Year to you. I’ve been having a bit of a chat on Twitter today about copyright notices in website footers – apparently today’s the day to change them. I’m not so sure. Let me tell you why, and if I’m wrong please do use the comments to correct me.

UK copyright law

My understanding of UK copyright law is based on working knowledge picked up on the job, and a smidgeon of legal instruction while doing postgrad study in Design Management. Here’s what I (think) I know:

  • Copyright is automatic – you make it, you have copyright to it
  • Copyright can be assigned – you can sell or give control of the rights to work to another (you can always retain a “moral right” to be identified as the originator if you do that)
  • Copyright is only meaningful if you wish to sell it or assert it against someone who has infringed your right (by making unauthorised use of the work)

To assert copyright you must prove you own the right to the work – that’s the tricky part. You might seek some form of formal registration for it (trademark, patent, etc.) possibly through appropriate legal counsel. You might send copies to yourself via registered post, or lodge copies with a suitable professional who’s word would be taken on trust by a court. You can also just slap “Copyright [date]” on things that you make or publish. All of these things are strategies to allow you to defend your rights to an intellectual property over another who may be trying to exploit them.

Your website’s copyright notice

“Copyright 2010”, usually written in your website’s footer, is the most basic level of “protection” for your website. Really it’s territorial pissing – a marker that says “I made this – no touchy!”. But it is a clear assertion of copyright. And what it says is this:

I’ve made this for you to look at, but not to reuse. I made it in 2010, so if you try to copy this you need to prove your copy was the “original” – so you better be able to show it was made before 2010, pal.

The “New Year – New Footer” problem

So now it’s 2011, your designer / developer may want you to change that footer (they may even have done something clever to make it auto-update). And if you do that your website footer now says:

I’ve made this for you to look at, but not to reuse. I made it in 2011, so if you try to copy this you need to prove your copy was the “original” – so you better be able to show it was made before 2011, pal.

Basically what you’ve just done is allowed anyone who copied your material in 2010 pre-date your asserted copyright. I’m sure you could unpick it in court, but really, why bother?

Why do we do this in our footers anyway?

Web design briefs always come down to a number of repeating themes and “it should appear up to date (even when it’s not)” is one of those themes. The updated copyright notice comes from this call to the web designers back in 1999: 

“The MD says our website looks out of date because of the copyright notice. Stop snowboarding and change it now!

After taking a few dozen of those calls we all just started doing it by default, and then started using web scripts to do it for us so we could carrying on playing Halo. Even though it’s silly and wrong.

What I’d do.

I’d get rid of it probably, and rely on archives (my own backups and the Way Back Machine) to prove creation dates. The notice is mostly meaningless anyway (what are you copyrighting exactly? words? design? code?). I’d also maybe just, you know, keep the site up to date instead of pretending all the time (or be man enough to know that a brochure that never changes doesn’t need to change).

Anyway – how’s my driving? Is this a fair account of copyright?

By Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/jonhickman Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research: http://interactivecultures.org